The average foreigner thinks of Britain as symbolizing the equal, yet contradictory, ideals of democracy and tradition. Foreign tourists love the UK for its symbols: The Royal Family, The Houses Of Parliament, and so on. Modern Britain is seen by foreigners and Brits alike as a synthesis, brought about through continual compromises.
The UK itself is a bizarre creation, that confuses foreigners endlessly. Modern British society is a post-imperial creation, a melting pot of populations that have been arriving to "the homeland" since the end of the Second World War. But Britain's institutions have faced repeated scandals ever since the financial crisis, such to the extent that it's hard for people to know who to look up to as moral icons, or which of its cherished institutions can be trusted or believed any more.
It started with the scandals that have engulfed the banking sector, followed by the expenses scandal, followed by the Murdoch Press scandal that has implicated MPs as well as the police. Then there is the tax avoidance scandal, the crisis of confidence that has hit the BBC due to the Jimmy Savile scandal, many scandals involving how badly our public institutions are ran (such as the NHS, the immigration service etc.), and the corrupt relationship between politicians and government contractors. Britain in the early 21st century faces a series of systematic structural failings that bode badly for Britain's future, with governing politicians unable to deal with them or make a viable plan for the future. Britain is almost literally falling apart at the seams because of government failure. The routine incompetence and impunity of the governing elite is just another symptom of the dysfunctional state of those in power.
The institutions that wield power in the UK have root in the political convulsions of the 17th century. The constitutional monarchy as we know it, the Bank Of England, and the functions of the Houses Of Parliament all came about through compromises made in the 17th century.
That century began with Britain having its first all-conquering monarch, James I, who ruled the entire island of Britain. James' legacy lives with us today in the form of the King James Bible, and The Union Jack ("Jack" being a shortened version of the Latin for James), not to mention Guy Fawkes, the famous would-be assassin and terrorist. For all the things that James in responsible for that we take for granted today, there were many more that people wanted him quickly forgotten for. For James was also an inveterate schemer who ruled the United Kingdom (parliament refused to allow him the title of King Of Great Britain) through divide and rule; an approach that would be more associated today with the likes of Richard Nixon. Although not a war-like ruler, this was mostly (also like Nixon) through an act of amoral expediency. As much as only Nixon could have gone to China, only a schemer like James was the man to make peace with Spain.
He also passed on to his eldest son, Charles, the arrogance of power, but not his father's carefully-honed political antennae. The Civil War, Charles' execution, and the Commonwealth, were a result of Charles' stubbornness and double-dealing, that would have been prevented if Charles had been more flexible.
As it was, even after the Restoration of the monarchy, both of Charles' sons (Charles II and James II) still created conflict with parliament, finally resulting the the "Glorious Revolution" of 1689 that deposed the openly-Catholic James II and installed his daughter (Mary) and Dutch nephew (William) jointly in his stead.
The "Glorious Revolution" was the real birth of the constitutional monarchy as we know it today, for it made the monarchy effectively the property of parliament and (symbolically, at least) the people. This was put to the test very quickly when parliament stated that the monarch had to be an Anglican. After Queen Anne died in 1714, the title of king passed to a distant Protestant German relative who barely spoke English, rather than Anne's closest relative, James Francis, her brother from her father James II's second marriage, who was a Catholic. Thus the "Jacobite" cause was founded, which rumbled on for the next half century.
The British establishment from that point onwards has learned how to do what is necessary to stay in power. While every other major European power has experienced revolution to bring about social and political change, Britain has stood alone in being able to withstand the "reactionary forces", pursuing a consistent policy of incremental change. British people, compared to their European counterparts, don't "do" revolution. The closest comparison is perhaps Spain, but even they went through many decades of Republican government before the constitutional monarchy was restored.
But the British establishment is more than just the monarchy. The "establishment" really includes all those that have a vested interest in maintaining the current hierarchy, which means the aristocracy, the banking sector, "public schools", and so on.
The real legacy of the "Glorious Revolution" was a gradual melding together of the monarchy and the parliament (which had a large aristocratic element in any case). The two needed each other for legitimacy and continuity, rather like how the corporate elite maintain the political elite nowadays in the USA. This is one of the things that the UK and the USA have in common about their respective "establishments": they both have decades (even centuries) of experience in how to occasionally surrender powers to the populace in return for a greater hold on their positions.
The "establishment" therefore breeds unswerving loyalty and sheep-like servility in the electorate through maintaining an illusion of democratic power, while making sure their own positions are inviolate.
There are a number of ways it can do this.
First is the idea of a "narrative". America has its own narrative that everyone, from the lowliest person upwards to the "aspiring classes" buys into: the American Dream. The reality, of course, is very different. As is the same in the UK, where the"establishment" continues to give out the message of an "island nation", somehow different from the rest of Europe, and thus where "European ideas" should be treated with suspicion. This is another reason why much of the "establishment" is anti-European: it presents the wider populace with other, dangerous, ideas. The "establishment" is only pro-European when it thinks it can get something out of it for itself. The idea of a unified Europe terrifies it, as it would lose much of its power and privilege.
Second is the idea of the UK being a "civilised country", where people are good and caring towards each other, and where everyone is looked after. Much of this is simply talk. Under this is the "establishment" meaning of a "civilised country": where people shut up and don't complain, follow the rules, are respectful to one's superiors and "keep calm and carry on". This is another reason why British people don't "do" revolution: the "establishment" tells us its "un-British".
Third is the idea of Britain holding the "mother of parliaments". The Houses Of Parliament are two parliaments, one of them (The House Of Lords) entirely unelected, and mostly appointees by governments past and present. In other words, it is utterly corrupt in any objective meaning of the word. Until the end of the 20th century, many of them were there through "noble birth". Since the former Labour government "reformed" it, many of these nobles were replaced by government appointees, easily subject to influence and machinations.
The Houses Of Parliament are populated by people who are generally either there through (in the case of Conservatives) being from the right family or having the right connections, or (in the case of the other parties) there through connections or being involved in the political classes from young adulthood. In other words, the majority of these MPs have little grasp of "real life", and even if they do, are subject to influence from the "establishment" in any case. Labour's last tenure in office is a case in point: their politicians made some cosmetic improvements to society, but also vastly indulged the banking sector (leading to the current financial crisis), allowed the private sector to increase its influence in education, and made university more inaccessible to the poor by introducing tuition fees. Once the more "establishment-friendly" Conservatives were in power, these changes were accelerated, and government funding to the public sector dried up. Any attempt at reform of the democratic system beyond a cosmetic one (such as the "AV" referendum) is rubbished as being pointless and unsuitable to Britain.
In other words, the "mother of parliaments" is a sham, for it does not hold the "establishment" to account for its actions, but instead perpetuates its existence, while feeding a false narrative to the electorate about necessity of its existence.
Fourth is the idea that Britain has the best education system in the world. The USA also makes this claim, and in the same way, both Britain and America are right. The UK and USA have the best education systems for rich people in the world. "Oxbridge" and the "Ivy League" are what keeps the Anglophone "establishments" on both sides of the Atlantic alive and well. These are the foundations that keep things standing (and the "establishment" far above their respective populations). Its hardly surprising that so many up-and-coming "nouveau riche" from China and elsewhere are keen to study in the UK and USA, when both countries have the best education that money can afford.
The "establishment" maintains the fiction that these educational institutions can only be maintained through charges that exclude all but the richest from attending, and the the country needs these institutions to protect the future of the country for everyone else. There is an alternative answer to this, and it exists in the educational experience of the Soviet Union. While I am no Communist or fan of Communism in itself, it is undeniable that the Soviet Union had one of the most advanced and progressive educational systems (relative to its cost to the population) in the world at the time. The Russian education system did not collapse after the Bolshevik Revolution, as its "establishment" guessed. On the contrary, over time, it thrived as never before. Cuba's education and health system tells us a similar story.
"Oxbridge", so the "establishment" tells us, exists for the benefit of the whole country, even though it is only the children from the "establishment" who can really afford to go there. The Russian experience tells us that there is a possible alternative to the status quo.
Fifth, and last, is the popular romanticism and trivialisation of the class system in the media and collective mindset. The media (with a few honorable exceptions) is also part of the "establishment", and maintains its status, consciously or not. Britain has one of the most entrenched class systems in the world, with the lowest levels of social mobility in Europe. This is a fact. And yet the media and popular opinion often make light of this. Although the country has made reforms to open up society on the surface, social mobility has decreased in recent decades, to unprecedented low levels comparable with our GDP. This is because the money has simply been sucked up to the top, undoing any progression that was made in the decades following the Second World War.
The public's bovine respect for the monarchy and other British "institutions" is another symptom of the popular trivialisation of the class system. More seriously, the "establishment" finds it easy to distract criticism of the class system by highlighting the fact that many people now consider themselves to be "middle class". This is not a fact on the ground, merely a point of perception, and a complete illusion.
What is "middle class"? Thinking you are "middle class" is simply a sign that you have bought into the idea that you think you are socially better than someone else, and makes it all the easier for the "establishment" to sit back and smile at these simple people's delusions. As far as the "establishment" is concerned, a commoner can call himself the King Of England if it makes him happy and docile. In reality, the so-called "middle class" are now worse-off than they have been for decades. If being "middle class" is about lifestyle opportunities and real income, then the real "middle class" family these days should have a combined income of at least £70,000 per annum. Anything less is just self-delusion. And it is this mass delusion by people who think they are "middle class" that keeps the "establishment" happy.
It is these five strands of thought that keep the "establishment" in power in the UK. It is only by openly challenging these ideas that real change can come to the UK.